The French director Patrice Leconte makes serious, stately movies that wear their weighty artistic seriousness like a plume—Monsieur Hire, Ridicule and The Man on the Train. His films are respectable, even admirable, but a bit too cold and aloof to be enjoyable or cherished in the memory. Needless to say, most critics think he’s just the cat’s pajamas. It’s a pleasant surprise to find that Leconte’s latest movie, Intimate Strangers, has all of his usual artsy trappings, but the depth is less portentous, and the humor less snootily mordant. The film is emotionally satisfying in a way his other movies usually aren’t.
It opens on a scene cast in the cold blue light of a typical Leconte movie. A man confronts his wife, accusing her of having an affair with the local priest. But we soon see that it’s just a tease: The scene is from a TV soap opera that rivets the attention of the concierge in the building where William Faber (Fabrice Luchini) works and where he lives in a tiny flat behind his office.
William is a tax consultant. We don’t know it right away, but before long, we learn just how bland his life is: He lives in the apartment where he was born, working at the business he inherited from his father, in the same office and with the very same secretary. At night, he prepares his dinner in a microwave oven (something that’s probably more revealing in a Frenchman than it would be in an American), and, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, he idly watches his neighbors through the window of his darkened apartment.
Then one evening, after his secretary has gone home, Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) skulks furtively into his office and, under the impression that he’s the psychiatrist down the hall, starts pouring out the most intimate secrets of her rocky marriage. William is visibly nonplussed, but considering the unexpected charge this brings into his humdrum life, it’s not surprising that he can’t bring himself to tell her who he really is.
Amusingly enough, William himself starts seeing the shrink that Anna mistook him to be, trying to work through the guilt of his own deception. Leconte and writer Jérôme Tonnerre poke fun at the psychiatrist seeing a kinship between his job and William’s—“We both help our clients decide what to declare, what to conceal. That’ll be 120 Euros.” Leconte and Tonnerre are dismissing the difference between the two, telling us that William doesn’t really need a degree in psychology to do what the doctor does. He just has to be able to listen.
Anna seems to think so, too, because she keeps coming, even though it doesn’t take her long to uncover William’s deceit. At first, she quietly berates him, telling him she feels “raped.” But she keeps coming and sharing her secrets, even exposing some of William’s (“Why do you always wear a tie? Do you find it reassuring?”).
At this point, the movie goes in directions it’s best not to talk about. It’s not that Leconte and Tonnerre spring any huge plot twists or major surprises. On the contrary, there are twists and surprises, but they’re low-key and subtle, and discovering them one by one is part of the movie’s satisfaction. One scene, which I won’t spoil (it involves Wilson Pickett’s recording of “In the Midnight Hour”), actually made me laugh out loud—something I never dreamed I’d say about a Leconte movie—at the way it added depth and self-mocking humor to one of the movie’s characters.
The movie unfolds in a series of William’s conversations—with Anna; with the psychiatrist; and with Jeanne (Anne Brochet), an ex-lover with whom he has stayed good friends. Because we see less of Anna, she remains more of a mystery—to us as much as to William. We even begin to wonder (with William) how much, if any, of her story is the truth. Late in the movie, there’s a moment of erotic revelation (again, no spoilers here), and the worm unexpectedly turns, in a moment of simultaneous pain and liberation for both William and Anna.
The story works itself out without cheat or contrivance. It’s a double satisfaction, in fact. We are content not only with how the movie ends, but also with how Leconte and Tonnerre get us there.